Another year, another Chicago Cubs starting pitcher on the trade market. As was the case with Ryan Dempster in 2012 and Matt Garza and Scott Feldman in 2013, the Cubs again have a desirable starter available to trade in Jeff Samardzija, who could very well be moved by the July 31 deadline.
Though the argument exists that the Cubs might be best served by signing Samardzija to an extension and having him around as their enviable collection of young hitting prospects arrives, it seems more likely they are looking to trade him to add more youth.
Samardzija is in the midst of the best season of his career, and he and David Price are the two best pitchers who are seemingly available this summer. That being the case, some team is going to pay dearly to obtain him — contenders in Oakland, Toronto, San Francisco, Atlanta, Baltimore and Anaheim — among others — could all use a rotation boost, and since Samardzija is controlled through 2015, the price will be even higher. Think about the bounty Chicago extracted from the Texas Rangers last season for two months of Garza — the one that Rangers GM Jon Daniels admitted already regretting earlier this year — and go up from there.
Then again, Samardzija isn’t the only pitcher likely to be available this summer, and the biggest purchase isn’t always the best one. In fact, there are a few other seemingly available National League pitchers who can put up similar production to Samardzija at a fraction of the cost.
Look at Samardzija alongside three other potentially available NL pitchers and their 2014 performances. Like Samardzija, they play for losing teams who will likely be sellers. All four are righties; all four are between 29 and 31 years of age. Two are free agents following the season, two have one year of arbitration remaining.
With one exception that we’ll get to at the end, what you have there are four pitchers with very, very similar performances in terms of strikeouts, walks and expected outcomes, even if you don’t necessarily think of Jason Hammel, Ian Kennedy and Brandon McCarthy as being the same caliber of pitcher as Samardzija. Teams aren’t — shouldn’t be, anyway — buying names, ERA or win/loss record. They simply want to get the pitcher who does the most with what he can control, and if you strip out the things that absolutely don’t matter, Hammel and Kennedy are pitching exactly as well — in some areas, better — than Samardzija is.
Now, it’s fair to say that players can’t simply be judged on the first few months of the season as though no information about them existed before Opening Day, and were we to have run this dating back to the start of 2013, it’s clear that Samardzija is the best of the group. But the point isn’t to say that any of the others are definitively better. It’s to say they will undeniably be cheaper — potentially considerably so — and are likely to offer enough similar value to Samardzija at a fraction of the cost.
Take your pick
For starters, it’s not like the others have never experienced success. Kennedy, for example, finished fourth in the NL Cy Young voting in 2011 and gave the Arizona Diamondbacks solid performances in both 2010 and 2012 as well. But after he struggled to begin 2013, he was dealt to the San Diego Padres for what seemed a surprisingly underwhelming return — Joe Thatcher, though effective, was still a 31-year-old left-handed relief specialist.
Once in San Diego, Kennedy’s mechanics were changed by Padres pitching coach Darren Balsley. The result? Kennedy’s fastball, which had averaged barely 90 mph by the end of 2012, is now at nearly 93, the hardest he’s ever thrown. Unsurprisingly, Kennedy’s strikeout rate has shot back up, to the point that his 25.9 percent whiff rate is the 12th best in baseball. Like Samardzija, he’s arbitration-eligible next year; despite similar 2014 performance and a higher peak in his past, it seems unlikely the Padres would ask for as much for Kennedy as the Cubs would for Samardzija.
Hammel, on the other hand, will be a free agent this winter, giving the Cubs another good trade chip. Hammel put up a few solid, if rarely noticed, years for the Colorado Rockies and Baltimore Orioles before collapsing due to a 2012 knee injury and 2013 arm trouble. Healthy again this season, Hammel has all but abandoned his curve and changeup in favor of his slider, and with good reason — over 40 percent of swings against it have ended in a miss. A .234 batting average on balls in play (BABIP) indicates some amount of regression is coming, but as long as Hammel is walking fewer than two batters per nine innings, he can limit the damage.
As for McCarthy, that’s admittedly a tougher sell: Even when you know better than to look at such things, it’s going to be hard for people to get past 1-8, 5.13 ERA. It should be remembered that the Diamondbacks are among the worst teams in baseball — it took Samardzija nearly two months to get a win himself — which doesn’t help, but neither does McCarthy’s unusually high home run rate.
Of course, most of that was concentrated early in the season (he allowed seven homers in his first five games, and only five in his past eight) and his ground ball rate of 55.5 percent is by far the best of his career.
Combined with increased velocity, as he’s shockingly touching 95 mph with regularity now, he’s striking batters out more than ever. More strikeouts plus fewer walks plus more ground balls generally leads to good things, and McCarthy is a great candidate to improve.
Remember, a pitcher traded at the deadline will make approximately 12 starts for his new team. Over that span, Samardzija might — might — be worth one extra win over the others. Yes, you get Samardzija for more than just this year, which has value, but if your primary goal is adding a pitcher for the 2014 playoff chase, there are other reasonable alternatives out there who will cost a lot less.
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